Throughout my opera-going life I have heard a few audience members express the wish for opera to be episodic. What would it be like, they wondered, to be able to watch an opera on television in the comfort of home for 20-30 minutes at a time and wait in excited anticipation for the next episode to air? For its 10th anniversary season, the innovative opera company, Experiments in Opera (EiO), has brought this very concept to life with its collaboratively written opera, Everything for Dawn, which will begin to air on Friday, October 7, on ALL ARTS. Aaron Siegel, Kamala Sankaram, and Jason Cady—the three composers who run EiO—tell us about the process behind creating an opera TV series and about their company’s pioneering work. For episode air dates and additional information, please click on the links at the end of this interview.
Please talk about your mission behind creating a TV-inspired writers’ room for opera.
Kamala Sankaram: I think that this was more about the process than what the form of the final piece was going to be. We were very interested in making something collaborative rather than adhering to the one composer/one librettist model. In recent years, we’ve been talking about how we can make something that is more open, universal, and inclusive. One way to do that is to actually have different people contributing their lived experiences and viewpoints to the piece itself. Throughout its history, Experiments in Opera has made full-length evenings that consist of short works by different teams of composers and librettists. But this was the first time that there was a team of writers creating a whole story, and different composers to set it to music.
In this project the three of you were the showrunners. What did that entail?
Aaron Siegel: With the kind of agenda that Kamala just outlined in terms of opening up the process to more and more people, the project had to be designed well. I think that’s really what the showrunners do in this context. We also came up with the original idea for the story. As the main producers, we convened all the writers underneath the umbrella of Experiments in Opera. The three of us have been through this process before, so we know where the pitfalls are, and where the opportunities are for people to learn new things. It is helpful to know what it means to play well with others. How do you create a space for people’s work, for collaboration and integration into a larger whole? When you’re watching a show on HBO, the showrunner is the person who keeps track of how the story is going. What’s the feel and tone of it, and how are the characters being treated? Is there a certain familiarity in that, is there recognizability of the characters? We were also quality control, trying to make sure that our vision of the piece continued to feel really present and strong.
Jason Cady, Kamala Sankaram, and Aaron Siegel – Collage by Aaron Siegel
Tell us about the Show Bible.
Jason Cady: Well, we were inspired by the process of TV drama, so we borrowed some of these terms. A showrunner… we use that term but it’s not entirely accurate; usually a showrunner is the go-between between the producers and the writers. We were showrunners and producers and, in my case, also one of the librettists. The Show Bible is kind of an unfortunate term, but that’s what TV shows use to define the whole background, give character descriptions and even the outline a little bit.
Kamala Sankaram: Because this show takes place in the 90s, one of the things in this particular writers’ room that Jason did was to put very specific 90s trivia in the Show Bible since not everyone was familiar with it, just to make sure that everyone is writing from the same common ground of knowledge.
Were there any particular TV shows or series from the 90s that informed you?
Aaron Siegel: Our director, Alison Moritz, came up with the spaces and also the different styles of capturing the film. In the first part, she talked a lot about peak 90s TV shows like Roseanne, Full House, and other shows that were really set in a home with a couch and that sort of three-camera style approach. For the second part, which takes place primarily in the mental institution, she was interested in the show M*A*S*H which is not a 90s show. But I’ve been thinking more and more about how the fact that the generation that grew up during the Vietnam War was really coming into their own and as the leaders of the Free World at that point. So, I think that there’s a link back to some of that as well. In the third part, we were really interested in reality television, which was prefaced by the 90s, like The Real World.
Kamala Sankaram: Those choices also have to do with which character is at the center of that part of the story. So, for Mac’s part, because he’s a Vietnam veteran and because he’s from that generation, it makes sense that his TV style is hearkening back to M*A*S*H, whereas the third part is all about Dawn coming into her own as an artist, and I know that Alison was thinking a lot about what her art could look like. The early aughts is also the beginning of video art, not the very beginning; in the very beginning you have Nam June Paik way before that, obviously. But coming into its own is the ubiquity of the digital camera and how easy it makes it for people to make video pieces, so Alison imagined that Dawn is a video artist.
“Everything for Dawn” was originally intended to be performed live on stage but COVID pushed you into creating it on video. So, there were 10 composers who each composed for a 20-minute episode. And there were 6 librettists. Did the composers work hand-in-hand with the librettists or separately?
Jason Cady: The writers worked closely with us but when it came time to composing the music, we didn’t quite have the same kind of setup. We did workshops for the music, so composers were able to hear what everyone else was working on, but there wasn’t quite the same sort of process of the writers’ room with the composers.
Kamala Sankaram: The writers themselves worked together. They would meet collaboratively, and they fleshed out the Show Bible. They were each assigned one or two episodes, and they would write a draft. Then they would share the draft with the group, so that even if people were responsible for individual episodes, they were still getting feedback from the whole group. We assigned each composer an episode to set to music based on what we knew about them and where in the story that particular episode was going to fall. So, the composer and their particular librettist would work together closely. But the composers did not work with the writers’ room as a whole in the same way that the writers were collaborating together.
Aaron Engebreth (Mac), Britt Hewitt (Dawn), and Sishel Claverie (Gloria) in Everything for Dawn – Photo: Aaron Siegel
Did the composers have any leeway or did they need to adhere to a specific structure?
Aaron Siegel: Our company has been around for 10 years, and ever since the beginning we have always been a composer-run group. I feel like we bring a certain perspective to making opera than maybe a company run by a music director or a theater director would, in terms of the creation process. So, we’ve always had a hands-off approach with composers. That’s intentional. It’s also a way for us to give some space and honor the work that those composers are doing. We’re interested in trying to figure out how to make the creative restraints such that they don’t need to actually collaborate with each other, although it’s really interesting that people always ask: did you discuss keys, how one ends and one begins? We don’t, and it’s so fascinating to me how it always seems to work out! People are often really afraid of these kinds of things because of questions like what’s going to happen, what if it’s in a different key? The truth of the matter is that we can take those risks and it’s going to be okay. Actually, it’s going to be better than okay, because it’s going to start shifting the understanding of what the form and the aesthetic could be as you’re listening to opera. You take these chances and make these experiments, and most of the time it works out really well. When it doesn’t, we can fix it the next time around or even in workshop.
Jason Cady: I’m pretty skeptical of the idea that the average listener is able to retain a memory of long-form key relationships or be troubled by an absence of connections. I mean, if you’re listening to pop radio and hearing just a mix of songs, they’re not going to be choreographed in a way to have some kind of meaningful classical form, and that bothers absolutely nobody.
Kamala Sankaram: I think this is an important structural point: because these are intended to be separate episodes, there’s nothing that inherently needs to connect them together. There’s a hard stop between one and another. So, it is more like a playlist in that way. The other thing that helped is that we decided on the instrumentation and the vocal types, so everyone was writing for the same instruments and the same voices, though, as it turns out, some people’s definition of what a baritone is can vary. But we also were collaborating with the singers. Once we had our cast, they went through what had been written for them, and if it didn’t quite fit their voice, they could ask for something that was different. That was also part of the process.
Jason Cady: All the performers and David Bloom, the conductor, provided a certain amount of glue that unified everything.
Have you encountered any naysayers? How do you deal with the people who strongly believe that opera needs to be created and performed only in certain ways?
Aaron Siegel: I’ll just say that among our community—and we count our community in the hundreds of singers, composers, instrumentalists, directors, and creative people who we’ve worked with over the years—no one was surprised by this. People were really excited about it. They get to meet new people; they’re in a room in a creative process that feels very much alive. Where you do have interesting rubs are places like OPERA America when you’re going to a conference and talking about this project, and people ask: who’s keeping track of this, who’s going to make sure the quality is good? This is a really different way of working and we’re aware of it. The word ‘disrupter’ is kind of overused but we’re like that. We’re doing what we think is interesting from a musical and a storytelling perspective, and the fact that it irks some people who think traditionally is actually a badge of honor.
Laura Strickling (Dr. Slade) and Joshua Conyers (Ed) in Everything for Dawn – Photo: Reuben Radding
One of the main story themes in “Everything for Dawn” is about groundbreaking art. What you are doing in the operatic art is also groundbreaking. This story reflects your mission…
Aaron Siegel: It definitely does. When we started off, it was going to be a piece we were doing for our tenth anniversary, so we wanted it to reflect our community and the work that we’ve been doing. We do a lot of really different storytelling. We do stuff that’s very genre-focused, like robots and vampires and werewolves, and we also do original stories. In this one in particular it was important for us to acknowledge the space that we’re creating for art-making that has a real personal impact. We know that Mac as an artist has had an impact on all of these people and they all have very complex and different responses to his work. It’s inevitable that this is also speaking to the way the people are responding to our work as a company. It seems like a natural thing and we’re aware of that, although we didn’t want it to be so on the nose, so we were really careful about trying to also situate that part of the story within a narrative that had nothing to do with art-making. Dawn is a teenager and Gloria is a mother, and all these characters are operating on different levels throughout the story as well.
How does the aria play into your vision? As opposed to grand opera where the flow of action can come to a halt during an aria, do you approach the aria moments differently to keep the action moving along?
Kamala Sankaram: Jason took charge of the writers’ part of the writers’ room, and I know that he talked to them about arias and recitatives before the writing process started.
Jason Cady: I was a little bit wary of ending up with librettos that were like sung plays, so arias are a good way to prevent that. On the other hand, I am kind of troubled by stopping the action and the story from moving forward.
Kamala Sankaram: Part of it also comes from Alison. Because it’s a film, you can use the film technique of cutting away to something else, which is something that you can’t do as easily on the stage because you can’t direct where the person is looking. So, in a lot of the aria moments Alison uses what she called a thought box, which is this specialized space that’s sort of like inside the person’s mind. There are also flashbacks to memories or other parts of the story—in later episodes, things that you’ve already seen. In the first few episodes you’re imagining back to when the family is happy together, for example, scenes that we don’t actually see and are not actually in the libretto but are just hinted at. That’s something that film can do that stage doesn’t really do as well. She did a great job with that.
Jason Cady: I think the demands of the screen are greater than the stage. You could get away with a staging that is relatively static for an aria in a staged performance, but for a TV show, it’s just not going to be satisfying. Alison did a great job with that, but also, she had to.
Kamala Sankaram: Yes. It’s not a Tarkovsky film!
Speaking of filming, you can tell that the singers are actually singing. When the episodes were filmed, was their performance live?
Aaron Siegel: It makes me so happy that you ask that!
Kamala Sankaram: It was a combination. We pre-recorded everything and then the singers practiced singing along with themselves in advance of the filming. So, they are singing but what you’re hearing is their recorded voice.
Aaron Siegel: They are lip-synching in all senses of the word, but just because of the nature of the composers and musicians we chose, we were able to create much more involved tracks with a lot of clicks, so there’s not as much “fermate” or stopping and going. The modern voices that the composers are using allow for a lot more of a rhythmically accurate performance. That really aids in the lip-synching issues that usually come up when you’re doing a grand opera. So, it was a choice on our end: we wanted it to sound really great. We all really liked working in the studio; we had some fantastic engineers who get how to do something like this. Ultimately, opera and any big theater production is all about problem solving so we had to figure this all out. We shot the whole thing in three weeks. It’s an insane amount of stuff to get through in three weeks! We had to make a lot of calculations around that.
Kamala Sankaram: Also, David Bloom really helped with figuring things out because in those moments when there is rubato and stretch, he figured out exactly how many counts of click those were going to take up so that it could be really precise but still feel organic.
Jason Cady: Speaking of singing along, not only were the singers singing along but most of the time David was as well!
Kamala Sankaram: The beauty of not using the room sound was that David could sing as loudly as he wanted.
Britt Hewitt (Dawn) and Aaron Engebreth (Mac) in Everything for Dawn -Photo: Aaron Siegel
It’s amazing how, when you watch the episodes, you think that the singers are performing live.
Aaron Siegel: Great to know that it’s coming across that way.
Did you have to do many takes?
Kamala Sankaram: It was a mix. A shout-out to Jeff Cook—the sound engineer and sound editor. One of the things he did that I think is so interesting and really subtle is that he also placed the voices spatially to try and match where they are in the film. That’s another reason why it doesn’t sound just like a flat stereo recording. He was very thoughtful about how he panned things to make them feel realistic.
What do you hope that the public will get out of this opera series?
Aaron Siegel: I personally feel that there’s a certain kind of literacy that people have around watching things on their television. My hope is that, at some point, there’s this switch that flips, and people say: “Oh my God, this is an opera? I’m watching it from my home, and it sounds so great, it looks so great! I’m not afraid of this, it’s not intimidating, and I can feel part of it.” That is one of the goals from a larger vision of our organization perspective and that’s why we work in different media. We do podcasts and work with a lot of different kinds of technology in our productions, and with authors who are telling stories relevant to communities and listeners today. We want people to say: “I didn’t realize that an opera could be like this!”
Jason Cady: It would also be great if an audience member forgot that they were watching an opera and just got really absorbed in the story.
Kamala Sankaram: I also think it’s exciting that we’ve given an opportunity to writers who had never written an opera before. It’s very hard to break into the field if you don’t have a background in classical music or in writing libretti or an opera. This was a way for people to find their way in, and I think that some of them are going to write more operas, which is nice.
Aaron Siegel: These are larger things that we’re talking about in terms of the impact of the piece. But in the story itself there are some things that we all feel really powerfully about, around what it means to experience loss, to grieve, to have creative activities and art-making be a part of that. Since we’ve been working on this for three-four years, people had members of their family die, there were lots of life events that helped center the power of working and creating work within a community. I mean, that’s not going to solve any problems, but there’s an emotional impact of making art, and the opera overall really talks about that, treats it seriously, and makes it interesting.
What can we look forward to next from EiO?
Kamala Sankaram: We have just started our next iteration of the writers’ room project. The librettists are meeting right now to begin creating the story and we have a composers’ call out for people who are interested in possibly being one of the composers for the next writers’ room. We have one more show coming up in the spring – a remnant of pre-pandemic planning which we’re glad to finally be able to do: Anthony Braxton Theater Improvisations, a piece for an improvising actor or comedian and instruments to which we are adding a vocalist, so it’s big fun! This will be happening the week of June 12; we’re still confirming the theater, but it will be listed on our website.
Aaron Siegel: This year we have a partnership with a composer named Alexa Dexa who is doing a lot of work advocating for disability access and disability justice, helping us as an organization be more aware of the ways in which our materials, our work, and our social media posts can be understood and shared by communities with disabilities. We’re really trying to take the lead in advocating for disability justice within our community.
What does the accomplishment of this opera series mean to each of you and how does it inspire you to go forward?
Aaron Siegel: We’ve had lots of ups and downs around this project. I can’t tell you how many times we thought it wouldn’t happen. It’s really rewarding to think about all the lives that we’ve touched through this work, and other things we’ve learned as a company. We’re moving forward into the next ten years as an organization with a real sense of confidence that we can do anything that feels supportive of the community.
Jason Cady: I’m excited that this is going to be streaming on ALL ARTS and it’s available for free to anyone to watch anywhere at any time.
Kamala Sankaram: I think it’s exciting that it is possible to make work collaboratively and with a flattened sense of hierarchy, and that the work can still reach a wide audience. You know, we’re a very small company, so for us to be able to do something like this and to have it go to ALL ARTS and be seen by so many people, it’s proof of concept of this idea and of how people have been responding to it, which I hope inspires future experiments.
Top photo: Britt Hewitt as Dawn in Everything for Dawn – Photo: Aaron Siegel